IF YOU HEAD OUT from Cape Town making for the Valley of Desolation, you take the main road to Johannesburg, breaking ranks at the town of Beaufort-West in the Great Karoo, where you head eastwards on the R61. That road eventually joins up with the N9 (famous for its “Uniondale Ghost”) and, before you reach the Valley, takes you to the pleasant little town of Graaff-Reinet. The town was founded in 1786, making it the fourth-oldest in South Africa, after Cape Town — the “mother city” — Stellenbosch, and Swellendam. Graaff-Reinet was named in deference to the Dutch governor of the day, Cornelis Jacob van de Graeff, and his wife whose maiden name was Reynet, but the burghers earned an early reputation for rebelliousness, proclaiming their own independent republic in 1795, with further uprisings in 1799 and 1801. While now situated in the Xhosa-dominated Eastern Cape, Graaff-Reinet is predominantly Afrikaans.
The town, which rests on a bend in the Sunday’s River, has a host of architectural delights, of which my favourite is the Reinet House (below). It was built in 1812 as a parsonage for the Dutch Reformed minister, and was later part of the teacher training college until it fell vacant and was restored as a museum after the Second World War, being opened in 1956 by the Rt. Hon. E.G. Jansen, the Governor-General of the day.
Everything about Reinet House is just right: the level of decoration, the placement of the windows, and the precision of its proportions. I enjoy especially the sweeping pair of staircases that flow down from the rear stoep. This has led some to suspect the design might be the work of Louis Michel Thibault, the greatest architect of the Cape, who is known to be responsible for the Drostdy which faces it at the other end of Pastoriestraat. I find the design of Reinet House superior to that of the Drostdy, so, as a Thibault fan, I hope he is indeed responsible for both.
But let’s use a few snaps from Google StreetView to get a better picture of the public and domestic architecture of Graaff-Reinet.
The Dutch Reformed Church undoubtedly dominates the town: it is to Graaff-Reinet what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Modelled on Salisbury Cathedral, it’s an interesting local take on Victorian Gothic; handsome, but not to my particular taste.
Behind the Church is the Stadsaal, or City Hall: a splendid Cape Dutch Revival building. If its colouring were more exuberant, one could almost imagine it in Willemstad or Oranjestad in the Dutch Caribbean.
Irritatingly, I can’t find out what this building is. I’d be happy to be enlightened on that.
Built as a Dutch Reformed Mission Church in 1821, this building was about to be demolished and replaced by a Total petrol station in 1965. Anton Rupert, the enterprising businessman and founder of the Rembrandt Group, was born in Graaff-Reinet and didn’t want to see the building destroyed. Annemarie Van Zyl supplied this telling of the story to the Bulletin of the Volksboukundige Vereniging van Suid-Afrika:
Anton Rupert intervened personally, offering to buy back the church from Total. He took the matter to their head office where he resorted to some gentle blackmail when he realised that he was getting nowhere. He apparently suggested that it would be a shame if all the hundreds of Rembrandt reps on the road those days never filled up at a Total station again, and that sealed the deal!
The old church was turned into an art museum which Rupert had donated in trust to the town of Graaff-Reinet, who in turn named it the Hester Rupert Art Museum after the donor’s mother.
While the town’s public buildings are significant, Graaff-Reinet’s domestic architecture is worth exploring. This house (at the corner of Bourke & Muller) is almost the perfect archetype of a humble but stately town house in the Cape Classical style.
It’s simplicity and symmetry are admirable, and it employs just enough ornamentation to make it immensely dignified.
Houses like this should have been the paradigm for the house-building programs introduced by the ANC government in the past fifteen years, especially in the Cape. Sadly, the government instead preferred to replace the shantytowns with dull astylar homes such as in Cape Town’s N2 Gateway.
When many of the farmers and dorpies began to replace their roofs of thatch with corrugated tin, it became popular to introduce a sinuous bend to the material when using it to cover over a stoep. The effect is welcome, and gives a certain Regency air.
The stoep is possibly the most significant contribution of Cape architecture. It can be found in front of the grandest country house or the humblest town residence, usually with a little seating delineating either end of the stoep’s domain.
There you can rest and wave hello to your neighbours as they pass on their late afternoon walk, perhaps tarrying awhile and giving the latest town news.
Trees, or the lack thereof, can often make or break a thoroughfare, whether a grand boulevard or a little steeg or alleyway.
So tot siens to Graaff-Reinet. Worth an exploration if you’re in the area, wouldn’t you say?